Building a thriving intergenerational in-house legal department

Today’s in-house legal departments have up to five different generations represented, each with its own values, motivations, needs and wants. And traditional management needs to change to accommodate a multigenerational workforce, says Rachel Brushfield.

There are now up to five generations in the workplace, each with its own values, beliefs, needs and wants. Much of the legal profession has been slow to adapt to these shifting expectations. Long-established policies, processes and practices need to be examined and rethought, or in-house legal departments risk failing to attract and retain the very talent they need for success.

In this article, I look at the impact of these changes for in-house legal departments, with particular reference to learning and development.

According to the Law Society’s figures for 2013, more than half of in-house solicitors (60 per cent) work in the private sector, with the financial services sector particularly well represented in this group. 37 per cent are employed in the public sector, of which 18 per cent are in local government and 8 per cent work for the Crown Prosecution Service. The remaining 3 per cent work in the third sector, including advice centres and registered charities. The average age of in-house solicitors is 42.

The five generations

There are currently up to five generations working in an in-house legal department. A generation is a demographic, psychographic and attitudinal grouping. Characteristics by their very nature are generalisations, but still provide useful insights to guide decision-making.

1. Veterans

Veterans were born between 1939 and 1947 , so are currently aged between 69 and 77. Retirement plans may have been delayed due to the credit crunch. This generation is also known as ‘traditionalists’. They are late adopters of change, need to be in control, and are risk-averse.

2. Baby boomers

Baby boomers were born between 1948 and 1963 , are currently between 53 and 68 years of age, and are likely to be senior managers or directors, or have left the legal sector. They have invested time and sacrificed a work-life balance for increased compensation and status and are reluctant to collaborate.

3. Generation X

Generation X were born between 1964 and 1978 , so are currently aged between 38 and 52. They are independent by nature, demotivated by lack of reward and recognition for time and effort invested, and will move on for new opportunities where they feel more valued.

4. Generation Y

Generation Y were born between 1979 and 1999 and are currently between 17 and 37 years old. They are also commonly known as ‘millennials’. They seek feedback and validation, and enjoy working collaboratively. They work to live rather than live to work, and seek varied and fulfilling work with meaning.

5. Generation Z

Generation Z were born after 2000 , so are currently aged 16 or under, and are the managers and leaders of the future. They are often grouped with generation Y.

Generations Y and Z combined are commonly referred to as ‘digital natives’ or the ‘net generation’ – goal and achievement-orientated, with a preference for active learning and social activities.

Simon Harper, co-founder of Lawyers On Demand, points out an interesting link between either extreme of these generations: ‘One thing that generation Y and veterans / baby boomers share, despite their age difference, is a desire for autonomy, flexibility and not to compromise their personal values. This common ground provides a starting point to discuss and effect change to long-held traditional practices.’

Why traditional management won’t work

The newer members of the workforce – generations Y and Z – need to be understood, and changes need to be made to accommodate their needs, as they will be tomorrow’s managers and leaders.

Research about generation Y indicates they are intelligent, questioning, ambitious and goal- and achievement-orientated, skilled at multitasking, seek personal fulfilment, a meaningful job in a friendly organisation and work-life balance, are strongly motivated by fast and transparent career advancement, prioritise support, appreciation and flexibility over salary, and prefer active learning and social activities. Failure to tackle generational differences will lead to clashes and increased employee turnover – costly in time, money, and lost business.

In February 2015, the Law Society published the Career Satisfaction Report to look at the level of career satisfaction among members, understand what motivates legal professionals, and discover what exerts the greatest influence upon their career decisions. The report shows that generation Y want to be involved in strategic decisions, enjoy enhanced mobility, and are more likely than other people to change jobs in the next 12 months – 35 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds, compared with a 26 per cent average across all age groups. Regular feedback and shared values are important for generation Y, and they watch the behaviour of leaders. Just 67 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds are proud to work for their organisation – compared with 83 per cent of over-55s – and only 48 per cent agree with their firm’s strategic direction.

Only 56 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds feel well informed about what is happening in their organisation. Baby boomers dislike collaboration and prefer a directive or ‘command and control’ management style, whereas generation Y like to be consulted and collaborate. Those who lack input into the strategic direction are almost twice as likely to leave their job as those who are fully involved.

These are significant differences, with huge ramifications. More experienced lawyers keeping interesting work for themselves and treating younger lawyers like workhorses who need to serve their time is no longer viable. Generation Y will vote with their feet if they are not happy. Employee engagement, workforce planning, performance management, rewards and recognition, responsibility, internal communication, and personal and professional development therefore all need to be re-evaluated.

The impact on learning and development

Talent management and workforce planning are the most critical aspects of successful intergenerational in-house legal departments. Success will come from the company or department being willing and able to change.

Leadership and decision-making

Historically, leadership has often been confined to older, more senior lawyers.

‘Leadership development activities can be started effectively from early in a lawyer’s career, engaging and stretching them, and adding significant value to clients as a consequence,’ explains Nigel Spencer, global director of learning and development at Reed Smith.

Setting up committees involving generation Y with defined responsibility and group coaching to address specific departmental challenges will devolve responsibility and provide impetus for change.

Performance management

Younger lawyers need a thorough induction programme, tailored to their specific needs, to ease their transition from education into employment. They also need and want clear SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) objectives, regular feedback, opportunities for upward communication, and guidance on which skills they can develop or are developing.

Miranda Brawn, Barrister and Founder of the Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Foundation highlights that ‘there are simple steps which can be taken to adapt approaches towards generation Y employees such as making time for regular two-way feedback to allow for open questions. This provides an opportunity to work together on development plans to establish stepping stones to work towards that goal. This will foster a sense of trust while making employees feel appreciated and valued. To retain the best talent, it is important that companies make sure they have a sound performance management process.’

Talent management

Talent management is more complex and fluid with an intergenerational workplace. It requires more rigor and sophistication, with talent software more important to monitor talent.

‘There is often more emphasis placed on talent management in-house, with training and coaching which isn’t just based on getting your CPD points. Opportunities may open up which give the in-house lawyer the option of moving away from a purely legal role into a more commercial one. Again, this offers variety and stimulation of a different type to that in a law firm,’ says Nicola Raj, head of employment law at Publicis Groupe.

‘There are opportunities within in-house investment banks to get involved with extra-curricular work and pro bono partnerships with some of the magic circle law firms such as Clifford Chance to help extend your legal and commercial skills. From a mentoring perspective, pairing generation Y with mentors within the organisation also gives them an opportunity to discuss with their role models how they got to their current position and gain advice on career matters,’ explains Brawn, whose organisation offers a mentoring programme to help the next generation of future leaders.

Talent attraction and retention

In-house is a popular and growing employment choice for lawyers. Work can be intensive and less hierarchical than private practice, with exposure to a greater variety of work, which is appealing to generation Y, many of whom who aspire to run their own businesses.

Moreover, according to Raj, ‘there is also not the same stigma attached to moving company for the sake of promotion and variety – in fact, employers often see it more as a positive that the individual has gained experience in different environments, whereas some law firms still frown upon lawyers skipping around too much.’ How to attract and retain the five different generations is linked to life stage, with generation y and baby boomers, while at different ends of their career, seeking flexibility, values and meaning. Flexibility is also attractive for generation X who have child and caring responsibilities, and job share can be a useful reward to attract and retain generation X talent.

Liz Kilcoyne, general manager of Lewis Silkin’s flexible resourcing service, lewissilkinhouse, comments on the wide spread interest across the generations in the flexible working patterns the service offers: ‘We’ve found a cross-generational interest from lawyers in our flexible resourcing service from baby boomers through to generation Y, albeit for different reasons and reflecting the point they’ve reached in their careers and/or caring responsibilities. Baby boomers and generation X have been attracted to the flexibility of the service in allowing time off between client placements; the baby boomers to pursue other interests, including caring for older family members, whereas generation X has often used time off to settle children into new schools or to move house. Generation Y has usually come to us looking for a variety of opportunities in working within different organisations across different industries, often to get a “taster” before committing to a particular sector, or sometimes simply to enjoy the variety the role offers’.

Career management

Career management needs to be flexible and fluid. Many in generation Y aspire to be self-employed, work internationally, travel and enjoy a fulfilling and diverse portfolio career.

According to Raj, ‘In-house offers lawyers more opportunities earlier on in their careers to feel that they are making a difference to their company, away from the more traditional partnership hierarchy found in a law firm. This includes being made to feel that their opinions on a range of matters are important, something that can get lost in a law firm, as well as working collaboratively as part of a team not solely focused on the legal aspects of an issue. This also gives them the variety, which is particularly important for gen Ys. Unless in a large in-house legal department (which are often run along the lines of law firms), then it is likely that the in-house lawyer will be asked to attend board meetings very early in their career, and their views will be taken seriously.’

‘It is important to act on career conversations by quickly setting into motion career management initiatives which are discussed during regular feedback sessions, while also setting realistic expectations about the speed of their progression,’ says Brawn. ‘In terms of having a portfolio career, this is becoming popular with more lawyers looking for variety in their work with some working full time as lawyers. Each person has to take control of their own career and not simply rely on their management or organisation to do this for them.’

Personal and professional development

One in five respondents to the Law Society’s Career Satisfaction Report say they don’t have opportunities for personal development and growth in their organisation.

Young people expect to be developed, and need a strong support network. Their hunger to progress early and get involved in decision-making, while positive, requires support while they gain experience. Effective regular supervision, mentoring and coaching support can aid performance and progression. Generation Y respond well to individual and group teaching, guided study and social learning. Creating a specific role for an experienced supervisor with good emotional intelligence would increase the likelihood of high quality feedback.

Skills gaps in young people, caused in part because they are ‘digital natives’, need to be filled, given the high accuracy and precise nature of legal work. These skills include writing, deep analytical thinking (or critical thinking), self-awareness, an acceptance of criticism, and emotional intelligence. Generation Y are used to looking for information when it is needed – they do not prioritise the memorising of knowledge. They need support from more experienced lawyers to identify sources of information and verify their reliability. As daily digesters of social media, they need bite-sized learning and constant feedback. Mistakes need to be recognised as an opportunity to learn fast, rather than as failure. These needs require a significant investment of time from older lawyers, but the ‘payback’ could be greater talent retention – especially important given the younger generation’s often-cited desire for moving jobs more regularly to gain skills and experience.

Lawyers, especially as trusted business partners, need to be professional and, to ensure graduates achieve this in their transition from informal education to formal business, companies should give clarity on ‘what good looks like’ – for example, turning up to meetings on time and how to word emails.

Clear milestones for skills acquisition and polishing and showing the direct and transparent link of these with achieving career milestones is motivating for all levels of post-qualification experience, and especially important for younger lawyers.

A strengths-based approach to personal and professional development is motivating, and a heightened focus on emotional intelligence in the emerging age of artificial intelligence is key. Support to develop resilience and mindfulness helps lawyers to deal with pressure and enable high quality, concentrated thinking.

Case study: Reverse mentoring

Reed Smith has successfully used reverse mentoring for its graduates in the year before they join the firm as trainee solicitors, when the graduates are attending the pioneering MA / LPC course that Reed Smith created with BPP.

As part of this course, Reed Smith created mentoring roles for the graduates, by asking them to lead group discussion sessions held in the firm’s offices with more senior members of the firm, applying the business models learnt on the course to clients in the firm’s industry sectors.

Nigel Spencer explains: ‘I wanted to engage generation Y, give them the early responsibility they seek, plus the opportunity to build their confidence by networking with senior colleagues and learning more about our business before they joined the firm as trainee solicitors. By changing the roles – the graduates became the “teachers” for these sessions – we removed the hierarchy and enabled mutual learning centred around understanding our clients’ businesses. The graduates told us that the reverse mentoring worked well, because it enabled them to consolidate their understanding from the MA / LPC course, while also sharing this knowledge with more senior colleagues. We saw this approach as a “win, win, win, win”: for our clients, the firm, the future trainees and our existing staff.’

Reed Smith has continued to pioneer new models of legal education, this time at undergraduate level, through its creation of the ‘Law in practice’ LLB Degree with Queen Mary University of London, launched in 2015. As part of this new LLB, students attend a series of business skills ‘masterclasses’ before spending the third year of their degree at the firm in an extended work placement. Once again, the aim is the practical application of knowledge and skills-building in a workplace situation.


Traditional management practices have passed their sell-by date. A willingness to embrace change will separate the winners from the laggards. Companies which open their eyes to a more meritocratic structure and devolve responsibility to younger lawyers will thrive and benefit from younger employees’ fresh perspectives, enthusiasm, proactivity and willingness to take the initiative in finding solutions for efficiency and productivity in an increasingly disrupted legal world. Those that don’t will become extinct.

‘Managers of people in all departments need to ask themselves whether they are respectful of all generations, or only the oldest. Generation Y are no longer interested in the brass ring of responsibility/status; they see portfolio careers and career change as normal,’ explains Mitch Kowalski, a legal services consultant, lawyer and author.

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS